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Projection Cue in Sven Ortel's design for "A Disappearing Number"

Back in 2004, I designed my first show for Simon McBurney's company Complicite at London's National Theatre. It was an adaptation of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. I knew a fair bit about the company's previous work out of professional interest and of Simon's fondness of putting everyday technology into his productions. It all makes sense to me because there are good reasons to use the technology that surrounds us everyday at home, at work or between the two in theatre. It allows a contemporary audience to relate to classical themes and plays that have been staged for centuries. Back then, we rehearsed and devised for 10 weeks with two additional weeks of technical rehearsal.

I had an assistant who programmed the Catalyst playback system for me (on the first tour, it was Ian Galloway and then Finn Ross on the second, both associates of my then company, mesmer) and paid attention to the events in the rehearsal room, whilst I researched, filmed, photographed, composited and worked out the projection system design. Everyone in this field works a little differently, but I choose these specific tools because they are integral to the way my designs work and look. In 2004, we ended up with a 30' by 30' raked stage that served as a canvas for projections and lighting effects. At the upstage end of the rake rose a sliced plastic curtain roughly of the same width as the stage for back projection. Then there were a couple of monitors and a total of eight video cameras that were fed into a few Catalyst media servers for realtime manipulation. There was no other scenery apart from a few props, a carpet and chairs. All got programmed on my trusty High End Systems Wholehog 2 PC with programmer wing. The show toured Europe twice and also went to India. In this production, technology was used conscientiously and adequately to help tell a story and never as a means to its own end, exactly what I hoped for and why I chose my living.

Subsequently, Simon and I worked on a couple of smaller projects until late in 2007, when he asked me to design his new, yet unnamed project about an Indian mathematician called Ramanujan who struck up a unique friendship and collaboration with a Cambridge Don called Thomas Hardy in the early 20th century. Ramanujan is now recognized as a mathematical genius who still mystifies scholars because of the unorthodox ways in which he arrived at his results. Notably, he never submitted proofs.

Design Process

Based on the previous experience with Complicite, I had a process in place and roughly knew that I was going to give my life over to this show for three months minimum. The important difference between this collaboration and past projects was that it was going to be completely devised. This means the show is created from scratch in the rehearsal room. We gathered many books and visual reference materials. We also listened and we watched guest speakers from various related areas such as pure mathematics, musical theory, and southern India.

The group of people in the room fluctuated as the project advanced. There were actors, but also researchers, technicians, and designers, eventually followed by musicians and dancers. Devising involves experimentation and exploration, so naturally, a lot of people came and went. The same is true for ideas. Some ideas work immediately and others did not. Some thoughts are discarded at one point, just to be picked up as useful again in the future. Anyone familiar with this approach will know that even without fancy technology, this is a painful — if ultimately very rewarding — process. 

Our common starting point was Robert Karnigel's Ramanujan biography and Thomas Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology. What I would put into the rehearsal room in terms of equipment and staff depends on my ideas and the expectation of the director and other creatives. I had a few ideas early that I thought could become relevant to this show. I had to make decisions quickly, as it is crucial to me to have adequate technical tools at hand when devising. 

There were certain images in my head that needed as the tools I knew my tools were not fully capable of achieving or delivering them. That was particularly true about the illustration of the concept of infinity on stage, a universe governed by maths and drawing “live.” Thus, I approached Richard Bleasdale, the owner of SAMSC Designs, Ltd. and developer of the Catalyst media server software, who has always had an open ear for my ideas. He realized and tweaked a few software effects in Catalyst to give me some more room to experiment in the rehearsal room and show rough ideas during the rehearsal period. I also asked the folks at Green Hippo about customizing items on the Hippotizer media server.

Experience has taught me that to make a very particular video effect work as part of a piece, it has to be introduced as early as possible into the rehearsal process. When I say “video effect,” I mean anything than can be done with a projector, camera, screen, software, and performers. That is why I had two media servers in the rehearsal room as well as three different projectors, some screens, and a plethora of cameras ranging from pinhole to pan-and-tilt models. My Wholehog PC had been upgraded to the Wholehog 3 software. That all may sound extravagant for a rehearsal room, but without the tools and toys there, we would have been unable to play and discover.

Again, I was working with an assistant who was at the controls (the brilliant Finn Ross) and an editor who helped me make imagery while I engaged as much as possible with the rehearsal process in front of me. We also had Tim Perrett on board, who served as video technician. Many times, individual ideas are examined in smaller groups and afterward presented as little sketch performances using what is in the room. During this process, where a thought or small narrative is illustrated or suggested with technology, all the equipment becomes second nature to the performers, and they learn that it is actually friendly — there to serve rather than to obstruct the storytelling. If anything, it becomes another performer.

My little team churned out around 300 clips and gathered over 2,000 photos covering Cambridge, India, mathematics, and anything else vaguely related to patterns in nature, infinity, World War II, and cricket. All fits just snugly on a one terabyte drive, but as the show evolves — and it evolves on every stage of the tour — we will be running out of space.

As far as the imagery is concerned, I was inspired by the events in the rehearsal room and created a large number of textures as well as many background loops relevant to the show. This layer of imagery was designed to complement the already tried-and-tested snippets of video design that had arisen from the rehearsal process. The textures I made were all related to mathematics, number theory, and natural patterns. My intention was to use them as a visual layer that could be projected over everything. The background loops were intended to evoke locations such as Madras in southern India and Cambridge.